OT: 23 January 1937 – Malcolm MacInnes “Piobaireachd Society Publications”

The Oban Times, 23 January, 1937 (?)

Piobaireachd Society Publications

Willerby, Hull, 21 January, 1937

Sir,–Finlay’s Lament supports the theory that pibroch is song slowed down, for the ground with its four-beat bars is too dead to have been the beginning of any musical composition, but it was quite good as a song, with the four beats as two. As in many other tunes, the real melody is disclosed in the variations–when the structure is on two beats.

This tune is also an example of the most surprising thing in the structure of pibroch– the shortness of the third of the three sections. In most of the tunes where this shortness exists, the authorities are in agreement; but here they differ, some being two bars short in the ground and all variations; some one short in the ground and full in the variations, and some two short in the ground and full in the variations. Glen’s book, without giving authority, has the full number of bars throughout.

What is the conclusion? The Piobaireachd Society, as usual, draws none. It does not even pronounce an opinion as to which is the best style of this particular tune. But the question is clearly raised whether in the cases of the recognised good tunes with one style and a short in the third line, this shortness was a mistake adopted perpetually on authority. How far authority can compel is shown by the way the extra beat is greatly accepted and played in the second-last bar of the ground of “Captain MacDougall”–where the C E beat should be deleted. The composer clearly was weighing two styles.

I welcome Mr. Grant’s contribution, and subscribe to all he says of Angus MacKay; but I am confident he will agree that in front of Angus MacKay should come Donald MacDonald. Putting aside Joseph McDonald’s “Compleat Theory” (which I cannot accept is genuine), Donald MacDonald is our illustrious pioneer in the publication of piobaireachd, and nothing is known of him except that he was a Skyeman, and that he was ruined by the cost of his publication.

He made the first collection of tunes, and he was the first to use the staff notation–a revolutionary advance on the old system of instruction by chanting and demonstration. But as in the case of Mackay, the thing is full of mystery. He cannot have written the accompaniments, or the scholarly language of the introduction; and the spelling of his Gaelic shows that he had not the guidance of a Gaelic scholar. But his genius is undoubted, as can be seen in that perfect piece of composition, the ground of the “Big Spree,” published by the Piobaireachd Society. Even the grace notes are used with the keenest ear to the notes before and after. It was not by want of thought that he preferred the C C beat to the B C, for he increases the effect of the following B’s by hanging onto the C’s and having C’s only.

Incidentally, this ground is an example of the difficulty of catching the rhythm in a melody slowed down out of recognition, and of the attempts made to catch it.

The stumbling block is the first notes EA. Anyone should be able to notice that these are merely introductory and not part of the melody, and should be before the bar line. MacArthur writes them as grace notes, and shows how unimportant they are by making them GA when he lengthens them into short notes for the smooth running of his tune. Incidentally also, it is an elementary understanding that in grounds the melodies have never been written as played, this being due to the fact that they have been noted by outsiders not from the playing of the continuous melody on the pipes, but from broken pieces on the chanter. Till this is rectified it is difficult to learn pibroch from a book.

There is much to be said for Mr. Grant’s questioning of the MacCrimmons. How is it that MacDonald, writing half a century before Mackay, does not mention them? Why has Gesto, taking down the tunes of the last of them, only two or three of the tunes attributed to them, and many not attributed to them?

Though the Piobaireachd Society have deposited their MSS., with the National Library in Edinburgh, I hope they will continue their publications, and also state their conclusions on the many problems presented, especially the problems of origin, structure and authorship.

I am, etc.,

Malcolm MacInnes